Language And Culture


The 66-year-old Vairamuthu, with a literary innings of nearly 50 years, says he has been interested in the Tamil language from the age of 12 and he started writing venpa, classical poetry, at the age of 16. “Language is my life,’’ he says, “my life is entwined with it.”
My daylight working hours are devoted to song-writing, to lyrics. At night, I do literary work, he says. When does he sleep, then? He says he gets enough sleep in the afternoon when he takes a good nap and at night, clocking in an average of seven hours’ sleep.
What time does he wake up in the morning? “I wake up at 4:45 am and then from 5:30 am to 6:30 am, I do yoga, for one full hour,” says the popular writer and poet who has authored 37 books including novels, written over 6,500 lyrics (including Chinna chinna asai that features in the film Roja) and essays. He has received several awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, the Sahitya Akademi Award and several National Film Awards.
The trim and energetic Vairamuthu says he walks twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays, for at least 45 minutes at a time. But regularly does one hour of yoga, every morning. And he never overeats. “When you sit down to eat, you need to remember three things: One half of your stomach can be filled with food, one quarter with fluids, and the last quarter is to be kept free, when you complete your meal.” He goes on to say that when you travel, your suitcase and stomach should be half empty, because you never know what you may have to put into either.
Vairamuthu’s latest book, titled Tamizhatrupadai, published in July 2019, has already sold more than 30,000 copies with five reprints. Its publication coinciding with the latest controversy over the antiquity of the Tamil language vis-à-vis Sanskrit, has generated huge interest in the subject. The book features 24 Tamil writers, poets and activists starting from Tholkappiyar, Kapilar, Avvaiyar, Thiruvalluvar and Caldwell to Subramania Bharati, Periyar, Annadurai, Karunanidhi, Kannadasan and Abdul Rahman.
“Tamil is the oldest living language. There are others like Hebrew and Greek but they are not alive. Granted, Sanskrit is part of our culture. To understand south India and its culture, you need Tamil and you need Sanskrit, to understand north India. Creative mythology says Tamil and Sanskrit are ancient languages, like the two sides of Shiva’s damaru, the story goes that when Shiva struck one side of the damroo, Tamil was born and when he struck the other side, Sanskrit was born.”
The poet goes on to say that the antiquity of any language can be gauged from how old its literature is, and in the case of Tamil, since the first documented tome on Tamil grammar, Tholkappiyam, is at least 3,000 years old, its literature is naturally even older, because “grammar cannot exist without literature. Just like oil extracted from the seed, grammar emanates from literature.”
Vairamuthu says the way western scholars have presented the story of the Indus Valley, is open to debate. According to him, western viewpoints say that when the Aryans came, their culture came to be known as that of the Indus Valley civilisation. “But even before that, the Indus Valley civilisation had reached its peak and those people had moved on,” he says, alluding to the other viewpoint that the Dravidians were already an advanced civilisation, who either migrated to other parts of India from the Indus Valley, especially to the south, or were driven out by invaders.
Vairamuthu says, “The Tamil script came thousands of years ago as grantham, and then Tamil; the Sanskrit script was popular in the south only during the Pallava and Chola periods, supported by those rulers, and their rock edicts reflect that. Then in a bid to revive Tamil, Appar and Sambandar started singing in Tamil.” Tamil culture was progressive. Vairamuthu points out that the Tamil word karpu for ‘chastity’is gender neutral whereas in Sanskrit, the word for chastity, pativrata, applies only to the female gender.
He points out that Tamil poet-philosopher Valluvar said, don’t classify people according to their occupation, as that creates superior and inferior hierarchies, because, by birth, we are all equal. In Tamil, marriage is called Vazhkai Thunainalam, that is, a partnership of companionship that promotes mutual wellbeing. Valluvar referred to the wife as vazhkai thunaivi, life partner, a companion — so women were seen as equal partners and respected accordingly. Whereas in Sanskrit, reflecting Aryan culture, marriage is all about kanyadaan, giving away the woman. There are many such examples to show Tamil reflects a progressive society, says the poet. While revolutionary activists and rationalists like Periyar EV Ramaswamy campaigned to bring the Tamil language out of its antiquity ‘and into the streets’ to evolve along with advances in science and technology, to make language more contextual, Tamil freedom fighter Subramaniya Siva, editor and publisher of the monthly Gnanabhanu, campaigned to preserve the purity of the Tamil language.
-Narayani Ganesh